250+1. Contemporary Polish theatre
In 2015, Poland celebrated the 250th anniversary of the first public presentation of the permanent professional Polish theatre, founded on the initiative of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski. On this occasion the past year was declared the Year of the Public Theatre and this particular concept has become the essential tool, along with the concept of the National Theatre, for defining tasks and functions of the theatre. In Poland majority of theatres are still public institutions financed from the government funds (state and local). In short words the public theatre is the one that – unlike any private one – does not operate for profit but for the common benefit. Its goal is not the maximization of profits, but the support and development of intangible values, which nowadays are quite often unjustly neglected, even though in many cases, they have a significant impact on survival and life success of a community and individuals constituting this community. This leads to a second essential meaning of the word “public”, referring to the idea of the public sphere that indicates the area, the tools and the process of free exchange of views and discussion, which is not intended to oppress and destroy the opponent, but to find solutions that might be acceptable to the largest possible group of citizens. In this context, the public theatre stands for a part of public life, the civic institution, the place and the tool of the debate on these subjects, which a community considers to be the most important for its own benefits.
Such a theatre in Poland has a long and rich tradition, associated in large part with its participation in the fight against oppression and political slavery in which our country has remained for much of the past 250 years. It was often the only institution, in which community could relatively freely talk about their most important and vital issues and communicate in spite of control and censorship executed by the invaders in the nineteenth century and by different variation of a totalitarian state in the twentieth century. Whilst resisting the oppressors, the Polish theatre created particular ways of communicating with its audience and at the same time developed various forms of critical reflection on understanding of community and national identity.
This close relationship of the Polish theatre with the political and social circumstances caused, quite paradoxically, that after 1989, when Poland regained full sovereignty, for some time the theatre seemed to be quite confused. Important and valuable presentations were still created but the constant disappointment arose from the fact that the theatre was not able to find response to the rapid process of changes that were taking place in the country.
The first sign of renascence in the Polish theatre were performances of Krystian Lupa, which in the nineties turned out to be original answers to the progressive disintegration of the world and atrophy of Europe. The situation changed significantly at the end of the last century, when the theatre scenes have been invaded by the directors representing the new generation – first by Grzegorz Jarzyna and Krzysztof Warlikowski, and then by the younger ones – Jan Klata, Maja Kleczewska, Monika Strzępka and Michal Zadara. They all have introduced new topics, new forms and new means of expression in the theatre, creating so-called the “new theatre” that may be considered a critical public theatre.
This theatre has repeatedly questioned the modus operandi of the authorities and their ideological sources – from the national romantic mythology to the liberal capitalism. It has also repeatedly and more or less directly attacked or critically deconstructed ideas, which were the core of the dominant way of thinking and through provocation it has attacked collective myths and symbols. It has opposed the sacred, yet often anachronistic myths with the world of the individual often deviating from the normative patterns. It has been often fiercely criticized for that, also because of a deliberate use of the strategies of provocation and scandal. And yet, I would risk the thesis that this civil commitment of a part of the contemporary Polish theatre has significantly contributed to strengthening a citizenship attitude. The theatre of a public debate – even if predatory and controversial – plays the fundamental role – breaks the indifference and peace of mind and does not allow individuals to focus only on themselves and their affairs, but encourages to think wider about the problems of the community. Unlike in the case of journalism, the theatre of a public debate, out of necessity, respects the voices of many parties involved in this dispute and, in its most interesting manifestations – makes sure that the voice of each and every party has its own values and own reasons.
During the recent theatre seasons in Poland we have had a chance to observe yet another direction of development of a theatre involved in public issues – the theatre that focuses on dramatic and theatrical performing not so much a specific thesis, but rather a thought process showing the complexity of the world and its important phenomena. For example Paweł Wodziński who is a director of The Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz consciously and consistently has created this kind of a theatre and cooperated with possibly the most interesting representatives of this trend – young directors Weronika Szczawińska and Bartosz Frąckowiak.
At the same time we may observe in Poland a dynamic development of a theatre that refers to the great tradition of the avant-garde and experimental exploration represented primarily by the world-renowned artists such as Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. Numerous independent theatre groups (e.g. Chorea, neTTheatre, Studium Teatralne), representing the movement that again begins to grow stronger, often use in a critical and creative way inspirations deriving from the past. There are various contemporary experiments located on the border between theatre and performance, developed in a particularly interesting way by artists associated with an important artistic centre, which is Komuna//Warszawa. The Polish puppet theatre and dance theatre also develop dynamically, and new, impressive opera productions attract the attention not only of the national audience.
Professor Dariusz Kosiński